The Mad Women's Ball
'The Mad Women's Ball.'

It's a man's world in The Mad Women's Ball, as the movie's earliest scenes make abundantly clear: A land where what a girl wants (education, freedom, the fundamental right to her own body) falls a distant second to propriety and whatever the patriarchy deems correct. Melanie Laurent's earnest, extravagant French-language drama (streaming today on Amazon Prime Video) finds endless lurid — and often genuinely maddening — ways to show that, without ever quite managing to make any of it feel real.

The pillow-lipped Lou de Laâge stars as Eugénie, a 19th-century beauty from a bourgeois Parisian family whose rebellions seem almost laughably small: She just wants to see her friends and smoke cigarettes and be allowed to spend an afternoon reading alone in café — things her brother Théo (Benjamin Voisin) does daily at his leisure, with hardly a thought for permission. But she's also incurably filterless when it comes to expressing her opinions, and a few too-honest exchanges with Théo's staid fiancée infuriate her father (Cédric Kahn), who sees her behavior as embarrassing, unseemly, and worse, bad for business.

Eugénie also has inconvenient visions, strange communions with spirit-world figures that send her into trembling fugue states. When her eccentricities make unwanted noise once too often a Rubicon is crossed, and even the sympathetic Théo can't save her; there's a one-way carriage ride and an ugly revelation: she's being abruptly, involuntarily committed to a sanatorium. The Salpêtrière is a place for the disturbed, disabled, and emotionally unwell, but it's also clearly a dumping ground for all kinds of inconvenient women, many of them perhaps too sane to survive the times they were born into.

Beyond the pompously preoccupied men who run the place, there are more women there to keep them down, including Laurent's dour administrator, Geneviève. She proves, though, to be the least of the staff's many resident sadists; for Eugénie, life there quickly devolves into a cuckoo's nest of cruelty and gaslighting "treatments." With no real recourse or end date in sight, she learns to adapt as best she can and make friends, including a guileless, tenderhearted girl named Louise (Lomane de Dietrich) — and also look forward to Le Bal des Folles, the one night a year when outsiders are welcomed in to celebrate. (Or more likely, to gawk at the spectacle and take what advantage they can of a roomful of vulnerable females).   

Laurent, an actress known Stateside for movies like Inglorious Basterds and Beginners, has adapted Ball from the bestselling novel by Victoria Mas, whose facts are rooted in actual history. She shares Mas' justifiable outrage at the casual inhumanity of it all — the brutal experiments and biased theories, the rampant physical and emotional abuse — and also her sense for melodrama. The movie finds moments of quiet empathy and observation: patients trembling silently in ice tubs, romping through dress-up bins, happily scrubbing each other's backs in the communal bath. (Marvel, Prime viewers, at the sheer, immensely French amount of nudity!) There are a thousand stories there, even if the one Laurent ultimately chooses to tell is mostly a pretty, improbable fantasy; a redemptive tale of catharsis and revenge that real life likely never gave them. Grade: B–

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